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Empathy and Income

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Dr. Michelle Golland: In these tough economic times, it's getting more and more challenging for any of us to feel like "giving" anything right now, whether it be money or our volunteer time. We are stressed out, overworked and fear we are heading into a "double-dip" recession (which sounds like a horrible ice-cream surprise covered in doubt and angst). We're all tightening our belts.

woman holding handing out money

So why do I still feel compelled to give extra money to my housekeeper whose sister is sick, and why I am scrambling to figure out how I can do "lunch bunch" duty at my children's elementary school? In some strange way, the fact that I really don't have that much money makes me more generous than those who have a whole hell of a lot of it! (OK, now I feel better.) Still, I would love to do more -- even when my husband is making a new hole in the belt we need to tighten!

A long time ago, my housekeeper told me that it's well known to housekeepers and nannies that the wealthier the person, the less "nice" and "giving" they seem to be. In other words, the poor are more generous than the rich. Paul Piff, a Ph.D candidate at Berkeley, recently studied this phenomenon; he found that lower-income people are more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful to others than those with greater wealth. They are also more attuned to the needs of others, and more committed to the values of egalitarianism.

Piff also discovered that it doesn't make a difference if you were poor before you became wealthy: Once you're rich, you'll still fall into the "less generous" category. Piff's conclusion? People relate to the group they're in, whether that be rich or poor. In terms of group psychology, this makes perfect sense. You see, the poor are more likely to give to neighbors who are suffering from the same problems they're dealing with themselves. The wealthy, meanwhile, are concerned with "institutional" giving, and (like my housekeeper said) they're not so concerned with the poor, or with their own (rich) neighbors down the street.

As the financial and ideological gap between rich and poor keeps increasing, there's less and less common ground; it's becoming harder and harder for either side to imagine themselves in the other's position. Sadly, this will only intensify our social problems. It will make it even more challenging to work together to deal with the enormous challenges that we are facing as a country.

I pray that I will get the chance to prove this theory wrong! If I ever become one of the "wealthy," I hope that I will still be compassionate and empathic toward those who are less fortunate.

How has your charitable giving of money or time changed with the economic situation? What causes or people would you give to if you were one of the "wealthy" people?


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